Tourists are coming to SLO County looking for thrills — and finding them

Adventurous patrons cross a suspension bridge at Margarita Adventures.
Adventurous patrons cross a suspension bridge at Margarita Adventures. Courtesy photo

Patrick Eaves got his first taste of extreme sports when he went skydiving on his 18th birthday. He went on to log more than 3,000 hours both skydiving and paragliding by the age of 22. In 2001, Eaves turned his hobby into a vocation when he opened WingEnvy Paragliding in Grover Beach, offering lessons primarily to other “thrill junkies,” or devotees of extreme sports.

Since then, WingEnvy has grown exponentially and offers paragliding from numerous sites around San Luis Obispo County. And though thrill junkies are still a part of the picture, most of its customers are tourists, including families, college students and a good number of retirees.

Eaves’ experiences reflect a global trend — an increased demand by travelers for high-thrill experiences, commonly known as adventure travel. This includes activities that involve a “perception of risk by the participant,” as well as a nature or cultural component, said Susan Mackenzie, an adventure tourism consultant and professor in the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration Department at Cal Poly.

In San Luis Obispo County, “open space nurtures the outdoor adventurist personality,” said Chuck Davison, president and CEO of Visit San Luis Obispo County, a nonprofit organization that promotes county tourism. Adventure activities are plentiful and include rock climbing, paragliding, skydiving, ATV riding, jet skiing and soaring along the coastline in a biplane. Many local businesses catering to adventure-seekers are reporting strong growth, and in the past five years, two adventure parks dedicated exclusively to high-thrill experiences have opened up in the county.

Tourist spending in San Luis Obispo County reached $1.58 billion last year, according to a report by Dean Runyan Associates Travel Research. Davison said adventure travel will only boost the economic benefits of local tourism, as the county continues to “refine its offerings and provide even more experience for the consumer.”

“Adventure travel is a big opportunity for our county to take advantage of,” he said.

Indeed, today’s travelers want more than a sunny spot by the pool — they want novel, immersive experiences, Mackenzie said. This is true for all age groups, from millennials to baby boomers.

Equally important is sharing these experiences, which commonly involves posting photos on Facebook or Instagram, or strapping on a GoPro and uploading the results to YouTube. Social media makes these high-thrill experiences “a social commodity,” which in turn further spreads interest in adventure travel, Mackenzie said. Many local adventure travel professionals said word-of-mouth and social media are the two main factors in the growth of their business.

Mainstream media has also helped to fuel the growth of adventure travel.

Tom Pecharich, owner of SkyDive Pismo Beach, observed an uptick in business after the release of the movie “Point Break” last year, which features a variety of extreme sports, including skydiving. Reality shows are jumping on the adventure sports bandwagon, and three recently featured local attractions. Cast members of the “Shahs of Sunset,” a Bravo reality show, recently took on the challenge course at Vista Lago Adventure Park at Lopez Lake. Last year, Margarita Adventures had a gold mine-themed zip line course built for a special episode of Animal Planet’s “Redwood Kings,” which features local craftsmen Ron and John Daniels. The park was also featured on a different Bravo reality show, “Manzo’d with Children.”

Primed for growth

Despite all the hype, Mackenzie insists that adventure travel is far from a fly-by-night fad. It is underpinned by major cultural shifts that appear to be both significant and enduring.

“The greatest period of growth could be yet to come,” she said.

A study conducted in 2013 by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and George Washington University showed that the value of the outbound adventure travel market for the Americas and Europe is estimated at $263 billion annually. This constitutes an estimated average yearly increase of 65 percent from 2009 to 2012.

Locally, most of the adventure travel businesses interviewed for this article reported steady growth. The strongest market for local adventure tourism appears to be in entry-level activities that can be enjoyed immediately without extensive investment in time or instruction.

An example is SkyDive Pismo Beach. Although the company offers lessons for solo jumps, the majority of its business is in tandem jumps, where an individual parachutes from an airplane while strapped to an instructor. Most of these tandem jumpers are visitors from the Central Valley.

Pecharich noted that revenue has been increasing steadily, at about 20 percent year over year since he started the business in 2011, and that the business has been profitable since last year. In his first year, he conducted 500 tandem jumps. Last year, it was over 1,800. The business fared well, even when the economy was sluggish — or perhaps because of it. Pecharich believes that, when California residents forgo pricey, exotic vacations, they look for “something exciting they can do closer to home.”

Also exciting is zip-lining, a sport long popular in the rainforests of Costa Rica that is now all the rage in the U.S. Two parks in SLO County feature zip lines.

Since Margarita Adventures opened in 2011 at Santa Margarita Ranch, it has grown from four to six zip lines, and recently debuted its 2,800-foot double-barrel tandem line, where riders soar at heights up to 160 feet over a steep canyon. With speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, zip-lining offers big thrills within a relatively safe and controlled environment. “There’s an excitement factor, somewhat akin to sky diving, but not quite as extreme,” said Karl Wittstrom, whose family owns Santa Margarita Ranch along with the Rossi and Filipponi families.

Wittstrom said that the partners “did not have any idea what the size of the market was when we first started, but it’s really exceeded what we thought it would be.” He estimates that the park’s revenue has grown at around 20 percent per year, and that over 10,000 guests visited last year, 70 percent of whom were from out of the area. Wittstrom said that the park is “striving to be profitable,” although the partners have invested heavily in capital improvements in its initial years.

In December 2014, Vista Lago Adventure Park opened up inside the Lopez Lake Recreational Area. The park combines zip lines with challenge courses of varying levels of difficulty where guests traverse elements such as bridges, tightropes and cargo nets.

Scott Schirmer, who co-owns the business with Bill Thoming, said the park is a good fit for the type of visitor that the county attracts.

“It’s not like L.A. where the beaches are huge and people just come to lay out,” he said. “Here, people do the beach thing and go wine tasting, but they also come here to be active.”

Schirmer said the park is on track to be profitable this year. He attributes its success, in part, to its novelty.

“When we started, there was nothing like it in California,” he said.

He also believes that the park has had a broad appeal.

“Our visitors are predominately families and young couples,” he said, “but we once had someone come to celebrate their 92nd birthday.”

Weighing the risks

While adventure travel can no doubt be a boon to the local economy, opinions of its overall value are mixed.

“You can find examples of where it’s done well and it benefits the local community, where it preserves natural resources and environmental and cultural heritage, but also a lot of examples of where it’s gone wrong,” Mackenzie said.

Off-roading at the Oceano Dunes is one example of an attraction where the pros and cons are still being weighed. The dunes are a popular tourist destination, in large part because it is the only California State Park where vehicles may be driven on the beach.

A 2011 study by California State Parks found that visitors to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area generate $171 million in total income to the county annually, $105 million of which is in direct spending.

Still, Brent Marshall, district superintendent of the Oceano Dunes District, acknowledged that there has been ongoing controversy over off-roading activities at the dunes. This includes complaints of dust from those who live in the Nipomo Mesa. Litigation by both homeowners and recreation vehicle enthusiasts is ongoing, and it is yet to be determined whether there will be limitations placed on off-roading at the dunes in the future.

There have also been concerns over environmental degradation at the dunes, though Marshall pointed out that California State Parks takes various measures to protect native plant and animal species. This includes closing off 300 acres of beach during nesting season for the protected California least tern and Western snowy plover.

“We have the most successful flock and nesting habitat for plovers in California,” Marshall said. “What we’re doing is part of a global movement that seeks to balance natural and cultural resource protection with public access and recreation.”

Risk of injury is another drawback of adventure sports.

Although accident rates at Pismo State Beach and Oceano Dunes have been on the decline over the past decade, they were up in 2015 and included four fatalities (three from all-terrain vehicles and one involving a street legal vehicle). Dena Bellman, associate park and recreation specialist with the Oceano Dunes District, attributes this to several factors, including increased park attendance, environmental factors and the fact that the park is attracting new visitors not “familiar (that) there is increased risk,” she said. She noted that accidents appear to be headed down this year.

Kiteboarding is another risky yet popular sport. One of its biggest local advocates, Kinsley Thomas Wong, died in March as a result of complications from injuries he sustained in a 2010 kiteboarding accident when a sudden wind gust slammed him onto rocks. Wong was a full-time certified kiteboarding instructor — one of the first in America — and founded the annual Pismo Beach KiteXpo, which, according to the Visit San Luis Obispo County website, is the largest kiteboarding event in the country.

Marina Chang, a Los Osos resident and owner and publisher of The Kiteboarder, a magazine dedicated to the sport, said few have stepped up to offer lessons since Wong’s injury because “it’s challenging to learn here with the waves,” she said.

The best way to avoid injury from risky sports is to participate with a reputable, licensed instructor or venue, Eaves said. Most adventure sports businesses are regulated in some way. Zip line parks are regulated by the state, similar to the oversight given to amusement parks. Skydiving and paragliding companies self-regulate through national organizations, with some oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration.

High risk can present challenges in running a business. Pecharich noted that there is no insurance available for skydiving operations. He relies on a waiver and a video that communicates the risks involved. For this reason, he only conducts dives for individuals 18 and over.

Both Eaves and Pecharich said fear of liability on the part of property owners and government officials has made it difficult to find sites on which to operate their businesses. Despite these challenges, SkyDive Pismo Beach has recently seen “big growth years,” said Pecharich, and is in the process of opening a second location at the Paso Robles Municipal Airport.

Attractive adventures

When Valencia resident Adrienne Reisinger and her 10-year-old son spent four days vacationing in San Luis Obispo County this spring, they decided to try out Vista Lago Adventure Park. They also went horseback riding, cruised the San Luis Obispo Thursday night Farmers Market, spent an afternoon at Avila Beach, ate fresh-caught crab, toured Cal Poly and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, hiked Montaña de Oro, and took a side trip to Solvang.

“We like to stay active,” Reisinger said.

Becky Singh, director of marketing for Visit San Luis Obispo County, believes this is a key selling point for tourism in San Luis Obispo County. “When you can navigate the area so easily without the headaches of traffic, it affords the opportunity to experience so many things in one weekend, whereas in L.A. or the Bay Area, one experience might take up the whole day,” she said.

So while adventure travel might not be the central focus of county tourism, it is highly compatible with other area attractions such as wine tasting, cultural points of interest and other types of recreational activities like cycling and hiking.

The owners of Margarita Adventures recognized this potential when they first began researching their park, which is located across the street from their Ancient Peaks tasting room and cafe.

“It was a way of getting people out here on the land and having a positive experience both at the park and in the tasting room,” said Wittstrom, who added that they consider the park a vehicle for reinforcing the winery’s brand identity.

Vista Lago Adventure Park has been a valuable counterpart to the other recreational activities at the Lopez Lake Recreation Area, helping to even out the park’s revenue stream. Although activities such as angling have been adversely affected by drought, overall revenue for the lake area was up last year, partly due to Vista Lago, according to park superintendent Larry Iaquinto. County Parks takes a percentage of its gross sales; last year, its cut totaled about $26,000. Iaquinto noted that adding a new attraction like Vista Lago helps the park “attract all types of visitors with many different interests.”

Singh believes that this is true for the county as a whole. Adventure attractions are drawing in new visitors and providing repeat visitors additional reasons to return. With the county’s temperate climate, abundant open space and natural beauty, adventure tourism is “a great fit with our area,” she said. “Everything’s right for it to boom.”